In November I attended a Kickstarter event for the launch of a documentary film entitled ‘The Penalty’. The independent film seeks to reveal the “fatal flaws” within the death penalty in the US, and show that the reverberations of capital punishment reach lawyers, the law and victims’ families alike.

Since that night in London, the reel nice production team has been on the road, visiting San Francisco, New York and Washington in just matter of days, before embarking on a systematic social media campaign to raise awareness of the project.

The team aimed to raise $30,000 (£20,000) in 30 days to cover the cost of producing the rest of the film. As of the start of this week, ‘The Penalty’ was 70 per cent funded with 269 people donating some £14,024 to the film makers who were also behind the acclaimed series of online documentaries, ‘One For Ten’.

I caught up with ‘The Penalty’s’ producer, Laura Shacham, as she prepared to enter a critical phase of the project’s funding. With just five days to go until their deadline, the team is plotting a mass galvanisation of support, once again, on social media.

What inspired you and the team to look into the issue of the US death penalty?

Back in 2007, Will Francome (co-director of ‘The Penalty’) made the film ‘In Prison My Whole Life’ about journalist and ex-Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was arrested on the day Will was born. He has been working on the death penalty in one way or another ever since.

Two years ago, Will and co-director Mark Pizzey were discussing the death penalty again. While researching they discovered that for every ten people who have been executed in the United States since 1973, one innocent person has been found on death row and released. A year later, ‘One For Ten’ was born. The interactive web series profiled America’s death row exonerees in a world-first “as live” documentary experiment.

People often ask why three Brits would be seemingly addicted to making films about America’s death penalty. First, co-director Will is half American and a US citizen. But most importantly, I think that once you know about the intricacies of the capital justice system, you can’t unknow or ignore what you’ve learned. The death penalty matters to everyone, everywhere, because it’s a marker of the sort of society we want to be. If it has a place in our justice system, what end does it serve and to whom?

Why is this project so important and what do you hope to accomplish with telling this story?

We’ve seen many great films on the subject. But they ordinarily focus on one single case, or the specific details of just one element – all of which can make for a brilliant and very successful film. What we want to do is something different: we want to make a film that connects all of the issues that feed into America’s modern death penalty: cost, distribution, racism, innocence and the human impact.

With ‘The Penalty’, we are telling the human stories behind the headlines: what is the human impact of the death penalty and just how far do its tentacles reach? We hope to show that the reverberations of capital punishment echo far beyond death row itself; that the death penalty impacts every day people like you and I, that it has implications for the victims’ families, the lawyers, the exonerees, and law enforcement.

But at the heart of what we’re hoping to accomplish is debate. American public support for the death penalty is at a 40-year-low and we believe that now is the time for a frank, open discussion about what place we give capital punishment in our modern society. We want all voices to be heard and we want to amplify the conversation to a decibel level that can no longer be ignored.

What have you found to be the greatest challenges in making ‘The Penalty’ as opposed to ‘One for Ten’?

We did an enormous amount of work in the run up to ‘One For Ten’; building partnerships with relevant organisations and individuals and seeking the advice and support of those working at the forefront of death penalty abolition in the US, UK and farther afield. So when it came to ‘The Penalty’, we were really lucky to already have a significant bank of support behind us and a really engaged, active network for the film.

Our greatest challenge has been (and continues to be) funding. With ‘One For Ten’, we were forced to raise all the funding up front in order to make the project happen and did so through a combination of foundation grants, angel investors, crowd funding and contributions from UK law firms.

With ‘The Penalty’ we are able to raise money in stages, so we have the luxury of being able to show more and more of the film to potential funders as we go. Unfortunately, making films in this piecemeal way can be incredibly stressful, especially when it comes to documentaries. Our stories are unfolding in real time, we are following peoples’ real lives, and so it’s very difficult to know that if you don’t raise the money, your stories will continue without you. There’s a constant sense that we need to be able to do justice to the people’s worlds we are documenting, and for that, we need to raise adequate funds.

I’d say it’s also a constant challenge to ensure we’re including all of the myriad voices involved in the death penalty in the US. There are so many unexpected voices – and particularly in the last couple of years – that have emerged and that we want to ensure are given a platform; understanding how they all fit together and form a coherent narrative is a creative challenge we’re all thriving on.

You’ve already received some high profile support from the likes of Academy Award Winner Susan Sarandon, comedian Matt Berry and musician Richard Hughes. What has that support given the project?

It’s really an honour to have high profile voices such as Susan Sarandon, Matt Berry and Richard Hughes supporting the project. Their support pushes the film to an audience we wouldn’t reach without them; it not only lends credibility but reach. With their help, we’re able to get the film to groups of people who share our passion for human rights and the issues surrounding the death penalty.

What differences between the US and UK legal systems have you noticed in your travels?

I think that in both the UK and the US, there’s an inherent and widespread trust placed in the legal system. Understandably, so. Before I began working on ‘One For Ten’, and subsequently ‘The Penalty’, I would have made the case for absolute justice prevailing, most of the time. Having spent months, nay years, examining the capital justice system in America, I can say that the flaws really are fatal. I can’t say the same for the UK system – although I’d need to make a film here in the UK before I could make a fair comparison.

The adversarial system in the US, and the way that politics plays so explicitly into justice, is the most glaring difference in the systems, from our experience. Judges are elected officials, district attorneys win or lose office based on their “tough on crime” – or otherwise – approach. All of these factors play into the way the machinery of the justice system works – it has an impact.

What, if any, support have you received from the UK legal community?

We have been really lucky to receive lots of support from the UK legal community. With ‘One For Ten’, we had ten UK law firms who did case summaries and legal reviews of each of our exonerees’ cases.

With ‘The Penalty’, we are about to embark on a new educational project with the help of the UK legal community: through an interactive visual journey, audiences will be able to learn about milestone cases, the latest decisions and legal rulings that have led to the status quo with regards the death penalty in each American state. This is a huge work in progress and we aim to launch in tandem with the film’s release in early 2016.

What would you say to UK lawyers to get them engaged in this film?

The death penalty is the sharp edge of the criminal justice system: no other element of the legal system creates such contention and is subject of so much debate. Never before has a film attempted to look into the moral, legal and social issues that surround a legal issue to such a degree. We think it’s important that the UK legal community adds its voice to this conversation; the ramifications affect us all.

This blog was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 2 December 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.

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